Budget and service cuts, fare increases and even increasing ridership will not be enough to bridge the San Mateo County Transit District’s ongoing structural deficit so officials with the agency are exploring whether it should go straight to the voters to ask for additional support.
If a ballot measure is judged necessary, district staff is recommending a potential vote in 2014, the next general election, according to a staff report.
What form the tax or fee will take or whether it will be a three-county vote to support Caltrain has yet to be determined, since it has no dedicated funding source.
The transit district is the administrative body for SamTrans, Redi-Wheels and Caltrain.
SamTrans has been suffering financially in recent years as less people take the bus. It has been forced to reduce its contribution to Caltrain by about $10 million annually to keep bus service at optimal levels. It is in the middle of developing a new service plan that will see the elimination and consolidation of many of its routes next year as ridership has slipped from last year by about 3 percent.
The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board operates Caltrain, which is supported by contributions from SamTrans, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.
With SamTrans reducing its contribution to the commuter rail line, the other two agencies followed suit, which caused a funding crisis at Caltrain.
Although SamTrans had an operating surplus last year by about $13.9 million, it still had to use about $10.5 million in reserves to balance this year’s budget to pay down annual debt payments for the Bay Area Rapid Transit extension to the San Francisco International Airport. The annual debt payment for the BART extension is about $24.4 million and is not expected to be paid down until 2032.
With ridership continuing to decline on buses, there is little support from the farebox and dwindling reserves. SamTrans is looking to find a way to fund Caltrain’s full schedule without impacting bus service.
While Caltrain has seen two straight years of monthly ridership increases, ridership on SamTrans is declining.
In August, ridership on SamTrans declined 2.7 percent from the same month last year. For the year, which started July 1, ridership has declined 3.1 percent, according to a staff report to the SamTrans board.
SamTrans’ average weekday ridership was 38,690 in August this year compared to 39,760 riders a day in August last year.
Total ridership on buses in August was 1,037,950 compared to the more than 1.3 million trips taken on Caltrain for the same period.
The board will hear ridership figures today and get an update on the exploration of funding sources to support SamTrans, including a possible tax measure for the 2014 or later ballot.
The SamTrans board meets 2 p.m., today, 1250 San Carlos Ave., second floor, San Carlos.